A School District Vowed to Stay Open, Until Its Staffing Ran Out

By Dan Levin

Schools in the Pandemic: A Report Card

Nearly 11,000 people were forced to quarantine this fall in a suburban Atlanta district that didn’t mandate masks, but it stayed the course, until a staffing shortage shut the doors.

River Ridge High School in Woodstock, Ga. Nearly 80 percent of the Cherokee County School District’s 42,500 students chose to return in August for full-time, in-person classes.
River Ridge High School in Woodstock, Ga. Nearly 80 percent of the Cherokee County School District’s 42,500 students chose to return in August for full-time, in-person classes.Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times
This article is part of a series examining the widely different approaches of U.S. school districts to teaching during the pandemic, and the impact on their students.

Lizzy Palermo says she was one of the few students in her suburban Georgia high school who consistently wore a mask to classes in the fall. But it didn’t save her from having to quarantine after the district opened buildings in August, as students and staff members came to school with the coronavirus.

Twice, Lizzy was forced to stay home for 14 days after exposure to infected classmates. The school closed its doors twice during the fall. Then, just after students returned from winter break, every school in the district shifted to remote classes as staffing shortages grew unmanageable and the local hospital was overwhelmed.

“This is what you get when you don’t try to protect the people in the schools,” said Lizzy, 17.

She attends River Ridge High School in Cherokee County, a largely white stretch of suburbs north of Atlanta that is among the state’s wealthiest. Despite heated opposition from some parents and teachers, the district’s approach to the fall semester reflected the urging of former President Donald J. Trump, who won nearly 70 percent of the county’s vote in November, and Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican: Open the schools, and keep them that way.

By The New York Times

65 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 7 percent Black, 4.8 percent multiracial, 2 percent Asian

Mostly in person, but some students have chosen to remain remote

ImageThe district has declined to require masks for students but enforces a dress code. “It’s ridiculous that I can’t wear track shorts to school when it’s hot outside, but someone else who’s been at a party over the weekend can come in and potentially spread this really harmful disease,” Lizzy Palermo said.
The district has declined to require masks for students but enforces a dress code. “It’s ridiculous that I can’t wear track shorts to school when it’s hot outside, but someone else who’s been at a party over the weekend can come in and potentially spread this really harmful disease,” Lizzy Palermo said.Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times

The community largely supported that direction, and teachers, who lack the union protections of their peers in some other parts of the country, had little power to push back.

Some families said they felt pressured to return — the district offered an unappealing remote alternative, and students enrolled in it couldn’t take certain courses or participate in sports. As a result, nearly 80 percent of the district’s 41,000 students chose to return in August for full-time, in-person classes.

When the doors opened, classrooms and hallways were crowded, football games were packed and masks were optional for students. Nearly 1,200 students were required to quarantine, and three high schools were closed temporarily within the first two weeks of the semester’s start.

By mid-December, more than 1,000 students and staff members had tested positive for the virus, and nearly 11,000 had been quarantined, some multiple times.

That month, the family of a hospitalized middle school math teacher started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay his medical bills, and half of the district’s six high schools and an elementary school temporarily ceased in-person instruction and gave final exams online because of a rise in cases at each campus.

Yet the district maintained course, with many parents saying they were convinced the schools did the right thing by teaching in person.

Parents who supported the district’s reopening decision rallied outside the district’s offices in August, urging officials to stay the course despite high quarantine numbers. Credit...Dustin Chambers/Reuters

“I wasn’t worried about it,” said Dana Vansword, whose daughter, Katie, 17, attends Sequoyah High School. “We’re not like New York, we don’t have all the people in the ambulances.”

Ms. Vansword said that in her opinion, the district had taken the virus very seriously. She even considered the measures overly cautious at times, including at Katie’s softball tournament when players had to spread out in the bleachers instead of sitting together in the dugout.

“It’s just silly rules that they have come up with,” she said.

Holly Baxley has been more nervous, but she said the district’s in-person approach was better for her daughter, Arianna, 18, a senior at Sequoyah High.

“They’re still cramming the halls, so that’s a concern,” said Ms. Baxley, whose family quarantined in November after one of Arianna’s classmates tested positive. “But in spite of all this, she’s going through the best learning environment she can.”

District officials said they didn’t yet have information about how students were performing academically during the pandemic. Some teachers, however, said the quarantines and school closures had made it difficult to do their jobs.

And among the 20 percent of families who opted for virtual school, some say the curriculum provided to online-only students — developed by an outside company, not district teachers — has been substandard, with no live human instruction.

“I’m not actually learning anything,” said Teagan Harris, 17. “There’s nothing that’s staying in my head. You just see some information, take the test and that’s it.”

Teagan Harris, 17, said she was not learning anything in remote classes.Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times

Beckett Blencoe, 11, said he was floundering in virtual sixth grade, and even his parents have struggled to help him at times. In one case, they discovered that the material in his computer applications class matched that of a university marketing course.

“This kid just came out of elementary school, and he is basically teaching himself,” said his mother, Ashley Blencoe. “It’s really tough because he’s smart, but he’s getting no actual teacher instruction.”

Throughout the fall, as infections and quarantine orders continued to rise, some parents took to Facebook, urging others to keep sick children home and to stop testing them for the coronavirus or reporting positive cases to schools, out of fear that the district might shift to remote learning if enough cases were discovered.

“No sense in affecting other kids who need in-person schooling for academic success and those who need sports,” one mother wrote.

Many teachers said they were reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. But a local group called Educators for Common Sense and Safety lobbied on their behalf throughout the summer and fall for a student mask requirement and other safety precautions — without success.

“The goal should be a solid academic year with every practice in place to make sure that teachers and kids are safe in schools,” said Miranda Wicker, 38, a former English teacher and a spokeswoman for the group, “and we’re not doing it.”

At school board meetings, some parents expressed doubt about the need for masks and said they infringed on personal freedom. Their sentiments were echoed by board members, one of whom dismissed the idea of a student mask mandate as a “warm, feel-good fuzzy thing.”

Even as cases were rising in December, the board declined to vote on a student mask mandate.

District officials told the school board in November that they had identified more than 70 clusters of infections linked to schools, but said fewer than five staff members had been hospitalized, and no deaths had been specifically linked to spread within school buildings.

Tiffany Robbins, an English teacher at Dean Rusk Middle School, said the constant outbreaks and quarantines had been disruptive for learning. “All children are not getting an education,” she said.Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times

Officials said that in several cases, the virus spread after unsanctioned student social gatherings outside of school, including parent-organized parties for band members and sports teams.

The district had no plans to change anything for the spring semester, Barbara Jacoby, a spokeswoman for the schools, said in an email in December. “As long as we are operating in-person school during a pandemic, there will be positive cases among students and staff due to the virus circulating in our community,” she wrote.

All that changed on Jan. 8, when the superintendent, Brian V. Hightower, took a drastically different position in an email to families: More than 400 teachers and other staff members couldn’t report to school, he said, because they were infected or quarantined, and there weren’t enough substitutes to fill in.

“Cases are higher in our community, our state and our nation than ever before,” Mr. Hightower said. “Health experts are voicing concerns that a new Covid-19 strain now circulating in our nation will spread faster among everyone, including school-age children. Our hospitals are full.”

As a result, he closed all of the district’s schools and shifted to remote learning for at least a week to allow students, families and staff members “to get healthier.” Then it became at least two weeks. Dr. Hightower said the district remained committed to in-person instruction but could not operate safely with so many staff absences.

Tiffany Robbins, an English teacher at Dean Rusk Middle School and the president of the Cherokee Educators Association, bemoaned the fact that it took a staffing crisis for the schools to take significant action. “It’s not about safety,” she said.

She said that many people in the district had shown little interest in slowing down the virus, and that the constant disruptions had been the cost: “Our community hasn’t looked at this and said, ‘Oh, wow, maybe we could do something to mitigate the spread.’”